The Scottish Parliament should introduce a recall system for MSPs

When it comes to democratic processes, there’s a lot that Westminster can learn from Holyrood but there’s one really obvious improvement Holyrood can make by learning from Westminster.

Despite being stuck in the past, with its unrepresentative voting system, the undemocratic House of Lords and much more, the introduction of a recall process at Westminster was a welcome innovation that has made British democracy more accountable.

Westminster’s recall system was introduced in 2015 by the coalition government. The Recall of MPs Act (2015) provides three circumstances where a recall petition can come into force. If any MP recieves a custodial prison sentence, is suspended from the House or is convicted for providing false or misleading expenses claims, then a recall petition is triggered.

If this happens to an MP, their constituents will be able to sign a petition and if 10% of constituents sign in the set time period, then a by-election will be triggered.

There is no similar provision for MSPs in Scotland despite calls for a recall mechanism during the last parliament.

Only two parties called for the introduction of a recall process during the last election – the Lib Dems and the Conservatives. Here’s what they said:

Scottish Liberal Democrats“Continue to call for the introduction of a recall system for elected
representatives.”

Scottish Conservatives “At Westminster, there are clear rules around recall, allowing a by-election to take place in certain circumstances, but no such rules exist for MSPs. We will introduce Mackay’s Law, allowing the
public to recall MSPs who have broken the law, grossly undermined trust or cailed to contribute to Parliament for more than six months. This will mean that Scotland will never again face the scandal of a disgraced former minister remaining an MSP, earning over £100,000 and failing to represent his constituents.”

READ MORE: Tory MSP calls for better Proportional Representation at Holyrood

That there have been six years since the introduction of the recall process at Westminster gives an opportunity to learn from the legislation in London – as well as from elsewhere.

The House of Commons system ensures that constituents can’t just recall politicans for any reason. There are clearly defined routes to recall – sensibly setting boundaries although there is room for expansion – that can be adapted for the Scottish Parliament.

The case for a recall system is as simple as it is obvious. MSPs who bring the Scottish Parliament into disrepute have no place in the chamber. The exact reasons that would lead to a recall petition (and potential by- election) would need defined but those outlined for MPs at Westminster, as well as the detailed reasons offered in the Scottish Conservative manifesto clearly highlight the need for a such a system. The fact that MSPs can break the law or not turn up to work and keep their job is a democratic outrage. The Scottish Parliament needs to learn from Westminster and adopt a recall process.

Scottish democracy needs an upgrade and the introduction of a recall system would help do just that.

READ MORE: 5 reasons to ban dual mandates

However, there is one practical stumbling block to the introduction of a recall rule. It is worth considering the two different types of MSP at Holyrood (although Upgrade Holyrood supports switching from AMS to a more representative electoral system). Recall would ultimately lead to a by-election for any MSP elected in a single seat constituency, however, the route to recall would be more complex for a regional MSP.

There are some solutions but the answer is far from obvious:

A region-wide by-election (a fascinating prospect but one that throws up questions about the very nature of the Holyrood voting system).

A decision taken by the party that the MSP belongs to over whether to remove the MSP and let the next candidate in the list taking up the post (however, this would give a significant amount of power to parties and take away the electorate’s option to have their say).

A parliamentary vote of confidence. If the MSP loses then they would be expelled from parliament. The next candidate on that party’s list would then take their seat. This might be the most sensible option but there would need to be significant checks to ensure that it wouldn’t be abused.

The correct answer to this is unclear (and there would be similar questions if Scotland adopts the Single Transferable Vote of an Open List PR system with levelling seats), however, introducing a recall mechanism would ultimately improve Scottish democracy.

It’s time to introduce a recall rule. Let’s learn from Westminster and adopt a recall system to improve Scottish democracy.

READ MORE: 12 reasons why the UK needs Proportional Representation

READ MORE: 8 Scottish Liberal Democrat 2021 manifesto pledges to improve democracy

How proportional was the 2021 Scottish Parliament election?

The final Scottish Parliament results came in on Saturday night after a roller-coaster two-day count (please let’s never have that again!). The Scottish Parliament was created with a broadly proportional voting system to ensure that seats match votes but how proportional was the election?

The Additional Member System (AMS) ensures that the link between seats and votes is far more representative than Westminster’s First Past the Post (FPTP).

A good voting system should have a strong link between votes and seats. That a party can win a majority on 43% of the vote (2019) – let alone 35% of the vote (2005) – is a clear sign that First Past the Post fails to facilitate proper representative democracy. There are a number of ways to measure how representative an electoral system is but the most widely-known method is the Gallagher Index. There is no need to go in the maths behind it here but a low Gallagher Index score shows good proportionality while a higher one indicates bad proportionality.

The Gallagher Index scores for the previous Scottish elections, according to Electoral Reform Society calculations, are shown below.

1999: 8.5, 2003: 8.2, 2007: 9.1, 2011: 8.6, 2016: 6.2

On their own the Gallagher index scores do not how much but compared to UK election scores we can see that the Scottish Parliament is far fairer than First Past the Post used at Westminster. Take the 2015 election for example, which had the Conservatives win a majority on 37% of the vote and UKIP winning 13% of the vote but only one seat. The Gallagher score on that occasion was 15, with all other elections since 1974 having Gallagher indices with double digits.

The 2016 election was therefore the most proportional since the advent of devolution in 1999 but what about the most recent 2021 election? Upgrade Holyrood’s own 2021 Gallagher index calculations gets a figure of 7.8, making the 2021 election the second most proportional election since 1999. (Update: Ballot Box Scotland has a figure of 7.3 so I will need to revisit my calculations but either way we’re in the same rough area).

This can be seen from the performances of each party: SNP (regional vote share 40.3%, seat share 49.6%), Scottish Conservatives (23.5%, 24%), Scottish Labour (18%, 17.1%), Scottish Greens (8.1%, 6.2%) and the Scottish Lib Dems (5.1%, 3.1%). Overall, this is broadly proportional although the SNP outperform due to their constituency dominance.

As mentioned, the Additional Member System, despite being far more representative in terms of proportionality than First Past the Post, has its flaws. Alba’s plan to game the system, by explicitly calling on voters to vote SNP in constituencies and Alba on the list, shows one clear fault: the risk of so-called satellite parties standing in the regions with an explicit intention of artificially exaggerating the support of one party. Had a supermajority materialised, the Gallagher index would likely have rivalled UK election scores. The same goes with All for Unity which had a similar strategy for unionist voters.

READ MORE: Salmond’s Alba venture exposes Scotland’s voting system flaws

The system may not have been successfully gamed by Alba on this occasion but the party has certainly exposed a key flaw of the system, highlighting the need for reform.

This is compounded by the fact that AMS is far from perfect in other aspects. The ratio of constituency to regional seats creates a constituency bias – a party could win a majority on constituency seats alone on less than half the vote (the SNP were three away from doing so in 2021). The version of AMS in Wales is even worse in this respect with 40 constituency seats and 20 regional ones. Mark Drakeford’s Welsh Labour won 30 seats but on less than 40% of the vote.

Furthermore, there is no direct mechanism to ensure national proportionality. Measures to ensure regional proportionality accumulate to deliver broadly nationally proportional results, however, they stop short of explicitly doing so.

In addition to that, another problem of AMS is the continued existence of FPTP seats which encourages tactical voting. Tactical voting will always happen in any system to some degree, but as many people as possible should be able to vote for their first choice, not their least favourite option.

Lastly, voters have limited choice over candidates within different parties – the list component of AMS ensures better overall representation but the fact that it is closed means that voters get what parties present. There are other flaws too which can be read about here.

It cannot be said enough that AMS is an improvement on FPTP. The UK needs proroportional representation. AMS results are broadly proportional and constituents are represented by a diverse range of parties but that doesn’t mean there are not better alternatives.

A sticking plaster approach to improving on AMS would be to retain the current system and add levelling seats like in Germany to ensure that seats overall match the regional vote. This would improve proportionality but voters are unlikely to support more politicians. An open-list element could be added to the regional list which would ensure voter choice like on Bavaria. In theory this would be an excellent improvement but adding a potential third ballot risks complicating things.

A better alternative would be the Single Transferable Vote, which would involve multi-member constituencies where voters rank candidates by order of preference. STV would deliver proportional outcomes while give voters a significant amount of power over candidates and parties. It is currently supported by the SNP, Lib Dems and Greens, as well as leading reform groups such as the Electoral Reform Society.

There is also the less talked about system of open-list PR with levelling seats, which is used in the likes of Denmark, Iceland and Sweden, and is advocated by Ballot Box Scotland (who has been an invaluable resource during the 2021 election it must be said!). Under such a system there would be multi-member systems where voters choose one party but get to vote for candidates within that party. Once seats are distributed there would then be a mechanism to allocate additional seats to ensure proportional outcomes overall.

Overall, the 2021 Scottish election delivered a broadly proportional outcome, which should be commended. the fact that Westminster still uses First Past the Post is a travesty, putting us at odds with most democracies. That said we should learn still from the flaws exposed from the likes of Alba and All for Unity and reform Scotland’s voting system for the better.